I was eleven years old, had just become a woman, and was interested in how adults lived when one night I was woken by the shouts of several people outside my family’s home. This wasn’t such an unusual occurrence in Dangamvura, a crowd having gathered on a street as if in devilish celebration. The reasons for this were many: a husband catching another man with his wife, two drunken men fighting, or a mob hunting down thieves. On this night, it was a mob. People were shouting, “Thieves!” and, “Stone them!”
I shared a room with my three sisters, Miriam, Helen, and Rhoda. I was the youngest. The shouting had woken them up too. There was a bit of excitement in it for me as well. I had never seen a stoning, just read about them in the Bible, and I wanted to see one.
You might wonder why people in Dangamvura don’t call the police when they catch thieves. That’s easy to explain. The police don’t even have a patrol car to get them to the scene of the crime. To pad their paltry salaries, they even take bribes to release those they have locked, and thieves know this, that they can escape jail by cutting the police in on their profits. So to make sure that justice is carried out, we are the ones who have to take it upon ourselves.
Miriam and Helen got up, and Miriam said to Rhoda, “See that Esther stays inside. She shouldn’t see this.”
Miriam’s command angered me. I was no longer a child and resented being treated as one.
“I want to see!” I protested. The single window in our room was open, and I could hear the mob a few houses away, approaching along a tarred road that stood before a field of maize.
“Miriam said no,” Rhoda told me.
I crossed my arms and stared back at her indignantly.
“Pout like a child,” Rhoda said. “It will get you nowhere.”
Rhoda went over to the window and stuck her head outside, listening to the growing demands of the mob.
A man yelled, “Thieves!”
But another yelled, “Stop! I beg of you! Stop! We’re Christians! What did Jesus say?”
“Jesus doesn’t live in Dangamvura!” a woman said.
Some people laughed.
I heard a shower of stones strike the tarred road and a man shriek in agony.
My brothers and sisters and mother and father had all gathered in the living room. Mother said, “Mrs. Chamapiwa and her husband suspected that someone was stealing their chickens.”
My father said, “Have mercy on them, Lord.”
“They’re thieves,” my mother said back.
“Justice in the name of the Lord,” Joshua, my oldest brother, said.
When the thief who’d been caught let out an especially tortured yelp, like that of a dog who’d been whipped, my sisters laughed, as did my brothers, but not my mother and definitely not my father.
The Chamapiwas lived in a house on the tarred road. They were what we call barren, which means they didn’t have any children. I walked past their house every day when I went to and from the nearby middle school I attended. Behind their house was a fowl run. The Chamapiwas raised and sold broilers, which are rather stupid birds: easy to grab by the neck, unaware that their heads are about to be cut off and their bodies drained of blood. Some Shona say that whites, who live up the valley from Dangamvura in the city of Mutare, are like broilers. They’re weak, the way broilers are. We Shona like to think of ourselves as toughened by life under Rhodesian colonial rule and Mugabe’s authoritarianism. When inflation hit record levels in 2008 and the shelves in the grocery stores were empty, many of us starved to death. Broilers we’re not. We’re more like roadrunners, chickens that know what they’re in for when someone comes for them. They’re not so easy to catch and often make fools of those who are chasing after them; they stumble and fall to the ground, their arms outstretched, clutching dirt.
“Maybe I know the thieves,” my father said. That had to be true. Everyone knew or knew of everyone else in Dangamvura, the way gossip travelled in beer halls, markets, and hairdressing salons.
“So what if you do?” my mother shot back. “Does that make them less of a thief, if they’re friends of yours?”
My father grumbled something in reply that I didn’t understand. He was a very quiet man.
I heard the front door of our home open and shut.
“It’s not fair,” I said to Rhoda. She was still at the window.
“What do you see?” I asked.
“It’s too dark.”
I went to the window and peeked over the sill. It was a moonless night, when thieves were the most active. I’d heard that many of them went about their stealing while naked to better hide themselves, and I’d soon find out that was indeed true.
“Promise me you’ll stay in this room,” Rhoda said.
I said nothing, which was my way of making no promise at all.
“If you don’t, mother will beat you,” she said.
This was no idle threat. My mother was strict. She would take a switch from a willow tree in our garden and strap it across my butt if I talked back to her or didn’t do my studies. My father was different. He was easy to get along with. He was a pensioner who had worked for the forest commission when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia, operating a machine that felled trees. Mostly he helped to clear forests up in the mountains on the border with Mozambique. The logs were milled into planks that whites bought to build their houses, very nice ones. Ours were made of concrete and bricks mixed with straw that had been baked in the sun.
One day my father was involved in an accident. The machine rolled over on him and his arm was broken. He had to have surgery. The surgeon who put a metal plate of some kind in his arm was a white man. My father had a lump in his arm after that, but he never complained about it. He told us he was fortunate that he’d had his accident when Zimbabwe was a colony. The government paid for the surgery and his stay in the hospital. During Mugabe’s rule that all changed. White people’s farms were seized, and the money in their bank accounts was frozen. Free and good medical care ended, and Zimbabwe’s economic decline began. Thieves began to prowl Dangamvura and Mutare, which they hadn’t done during colonial times. Now and then my father would think about those Rhodesian days and drink a bit too much cane spirit. If we children disturbed him, he’d shout, “Fuck off!” and go sit by himself under an avocado tree in our yard, contemplating, I believe, what had been and what we children would probably never know.
I waited a minute or so after Rhoda had joined our family before leaving home and rushing off to the mob that had gathered at the Chamapiwas’ house. A hundred or more people were there, enough to fill an assembly hall at my school. Many of them were clutching stones and chanting, “Stone them!” “Stone them!” “Stone them!”
Once again a man said, “No. Call the police! It’s not right to stone them! It’s not Christian!”
He was met by laughter.
One woman said to him, “You need a stone on your head to make you come to your senses, fool.”
The mob laughed.
On the side of the tarred road, Mr. Chamapiwa was standing over a fat little man. He was naked, just as I’d been told about thieves, how they went about their business. One of Mr. Chamapiwa’s large hands was clutching the pitiful little man by the back of his neck, the way he might clutch a dog. I looked at the little man carefully and began to tremble. You see, I recognized him. He was my math teacher, Mr. Napwna. What a surprise it was to see him there naked, a thief. It confused me because he was one of my favourite teachers. I never would’ve thought he would be going around naked stealing chickens. He was a good teacher, serious but humorous. We all learned from him, unlike other teachers who very often sat on their butts on strike to protest their low salaries as we prepared for our examinations, hoping for a high enough mark to be accepted into a good high school. Mr. Napwna was nearing retirement. His wife was ten or so years younger than him. They had several children, all of whom were away at university or working in Harare or South Africa.
Mr. Chamapiwa’s wife said, “Look at this one!” Holding a goat stick, she pointed at Mr. Napwna’s wife, who had a black sack at her feet. She was naked as well, sitting in the mud. A few white feathers were stuck to the sack. Everyone knew what was inside it, all right—broilers. Someone shone a torch on her. I saw blood dripping from her breasts. Maybe I’d wanted to see the thieves be punished, but I wasn’t prepared for this cruelty.
“We outsmarted this fool,” Mr. Chamapiwa said. “I used the same footpath they had, coming up on them from behind in the dark. A teacher! Imagine!”
“Shame!” a man shouted.
“Our children admire you,” a woman said. I think she started to sob, but I’m not sure about that—only that others laughed, but at whom I didn’t know.
I knew what Mr. Chamapiwa had meant about the footpath. It led through the maize field to his fowl run. I took it from time to time as a shortcut to visit a schoolmate over in another section of Dangamvura. The path had offered Mr. Napwna and his wife cover, for sure. No one dared to take it at night, fearing the snakes that could be there, the vipers, mambas, and cobras. The path went through a wetlands.
“Who were you selling my chickens to?” Mr. Chamapiwa asked.
Neither Mr. Napwna nor his wife said anything. They just whimpered like dogs.
“These butchers,” a woman said, “they’re no better than these thieves. A teacher!”
“Teach them a lesson!”
“My pension won’t be enough for us,” Mr. Napwna protested.
A pall fell on the mob. Some local butchers had bought the stolen chickens, of course. I recalled hearing my mother talking one day about how fresh the chickens were at Ivan’s butchery. His shop was where most of us went to buy meat, when we could afford it.
Seeing Mr. Napwna, now a naked little fat man on the road, his head and face bloodied by stones, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. He’d been good to me, helped me after class if I had a question about a problem I couldn’t solve. It was also what I’d learned in church, what Jesus had taught: to forgive those who sinned. But none of what any pastor preached from the pulpit seemed to matter to those who had gathered that night.
“I just had surgery,” Mr. Napwna said. “I beg of you!” He pointed at a scar above his waist and said, “What if my wound ruptures when I try to walk?”
The mob scoffed at this. I recalled that he hadn’t been able to attend his classes a month before, but I didn’t know what the surgery was all about.
“How did you manage to walk along that path to Mr. Chamapiwa’s fowl run without it rupturing?” a woman asked.
“Drag the fool out onto the road,” Mr. Chamapiwa said. “We’ll find out if he can walk when a car or lorry comes along.”
“Please, no! I beg of you! My pension, you understand. It’s not enough. I had surgery!”
Mr. Chamapiwa and another man dragged Mr. Napwna along into the centre of the tarred road. His wife shrieked, “He’s weak!” Mrs. Chamapiwa struck her with the goat stick across her breasts. She shrieked, “Forgive us, forgive us. Lord, I pray to you for forgiveness. We have sinned. We are sinners.”
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” a man said. “You two knew what you were up to.”
A woman shouted, “Have you not learned anything from your pastor of what our saviour taught?”
This was met with a chorus of “amens!”
The headlights of a car appeared, and Mr. Napwna staggered to his feet and stumbled off as best he could as stones rained down on him. He fell into the mud on the side of the road and covered his face. The stones kept coming. He screamed. The mob laughed. I felt shame, pity, and understanding for my teacher.
It happened that he died in the general hospital a week later, but no one talked about that. His wife left Dangamvura and went to Harare to live with one of their sons. A drunk who abused his wife—he and his wife had five children—moved into the Napwna’s house, but no one said a word about that sinner. Rather, they greeted him respectfully—“Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” “Hope to see you and your family in church on Sunday”—because he was a member of ZANU-PF, and no one dared to confront a man in the ruling party.
I felt the arms of my father grab me from behind and lift me. He started to carry me back to our home as my mother yelled, “Weren’t you supposed to stay in your room? Weren’t you?”
“I never promised I would,” I said.
She twisted my earlobe. I didn’t give in to her, didn’t utter one whimper to satisfy her. Not one. She twisted harder but I still didn’t give in. And then when we were home and my father set me down, she whipped me with a willow. I clenched my teeth so I could endure the pain. I didn’t shed one tear.
“That’ll teach you to do what you’re told,” mother said.
The next evening my mother served us chicken with kovo and tomatoes and our staple food, sadza, made from maize meal. Still feeling the sting of that willow on my butt, I refused to eat the chicken. My mother said, “One beating wasn’t enough, Esther?”
I stared back at her. “He was a good teacher,” I said.
“Eat the chicken.”
My sisters and brothers laughed, then continued on eating.
“Did he teach stealing?” Amos asked.
They all laughed again. I said, “It’s not what Jesus taught, what happened.”
“Excuse us. Esther and I are going outside,” my mother said.
“Beat me all you want. I’m not eating that chicken.”
“All of you, just fuck off.” My father had some cane spirits that afternoon and was a little drunk.
“You’ve got a lot to learn, Esther,” my mother said.
“I learned plenty last night.”
My mother grabbed me by an earlobe and twisted it, forcing me outside, and when she began to beat me, I clenched my teeth as I had the night before, not giving her the pleasure of knowing the pain I was feeling.
Esther Mubawa is a single mother who works as a maid in Cape Town, South Africa, as do many other Zimbabwean women. She writes about the lives of Shona women in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Find her on Twitter at @EMubawa.